Week #1: Introduction to Digital Tools for Historians

Guitar being played by Tom Walton: White Springs, Florida (1982), Florida Memory

This is my first week in a “Digital Tools for Historians” graduate level class at the University of Central Florida. I decided to take the class because I am interested in utilizing digital tools for my thesis on Florida folk music. Originally, I planned to write the customary research paper about the topic, but I realized that a traditional thesis would not do; digital scholarship is the best avenue for an exploration of folk music in Florida. Music is meant to be heard, and the most effective way to share my findings is to incorporate a digital component. I hope to produce a podcast series about Florida folk music. I would also like to create a map interface to host my podcasts about the music. The specifics of the podcast series will be discussed in a future blog post. While I am interested in the idea of using digital tools to explore folk music in Florida, I must admit that I am a “newbie” when it comes to interactive map interfaces, GIS, XML, CHART, MOOCs, and the like. I am a bit intimidated by the technical aspects of the course.

Still from the Valley of the Shadow website

During the first week of the Digital Tools class, I was introduced to the pioneering work of Edward L. Ayers, a public historian with the University of Richmond who has promoted the use of digital tools in the examination of history. Among other impressive accomplishments, Ayers founded the Virginia Center for Digital History. A scholar of the Civil War, Ayers created the groundbreaking Valley of the Shadow project in the early 1990s with the help of undergraduate and graduate students and technical professionals. The Valley of the Shadow is a digital archive that allows for the analysis of the Civil War from the perspective of two American communities (Augusta County, Virginia, and Franklin County, Pennsylvania) through the letters, diaries, newspapers, census, military, and religious records of the men and women who lived there between the years 1859 and 1870. As a historian, I find myself searching the site for a thesis, but there does not seem to be any blatant argument. Rather than offering an interpretation or a viewpoint, Valley of the Shadow encourages visitors of the site to find their own themes and patterns hidden in the historical records. Patterns, interconnectedness, and a concentration on the experiences of common people seem to be themes in Ayers’ work. Furthermore Ayers is clearly interested in pushing the boundaries of history and democratizing it by making it accessible to more people.

Ayers also co-authored a digital article “The Differences Slavery Made: A Close Analysis of Two American Communities” for the American Historical Review. Ayers and his team utilized the methodology of “historical GIS” in order to compare the communities by asking spatial questions and using statistical analysis concerning the precise role of slavery in the development of the Civil War. In recent years, Ayers also helped create “Hidden Patterns of the Civil War”, a website that analyzes maps, letters, speeches and other primary documents to find patterns pertaining to the causes and consequences of the Civil War.

Ayers has inspired other historical sites such as Virtual Jamestown, The Geography of Slavery in Virginia, and even The Valley Sim, a role playing Civil War game. Ayers’ digital projects differ from traditional Civil War scholarship due to the visual and interactive possibilities. Digital tools offer innovative ways to understand the past and allow for a more hands on approach to history. Yet, unlike traditional historical methods, the use of digital tools in the field of history often requires technical skills, money, collaboration, and a dedicated team of people. As we venture further into the semester, I wonder if I will have the skills and the means to successfully produce my interactive site about Florida folk music. How can I build the site I envision? Will there always be patterns to find in history? Should the site offer interpretation or should it allow the visitor to interpret the material on their own? Is my “Exploration of Florida Folk Music” website idea creative enough? Most importantly, will people want to visit the site? What will they learn from the information presented? While I have some questions about merging digital tools and historical research as Ayers has done, it is clear to me that digital scholarship and historical exploration go well together. Indeed, the use of digital tools in historical research seems to be the way of the future. I agree with Ayers that historians need to adapt to such new technologies or they might be left behind.


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